News: One Block at a Time

Entrepreneur-cum-philanthropist has dream for Over-the-Rhine

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Jymi Bolden

Matt Stonecash (left) and John Matre, volunteers with Give Back Cincinnati, help prepare the new Dirigar Center. The center is part of the Smith Family Foundation's initiative in Over-the-Rhine.

Gale Smith of southeastern Indiana is finished building financial empires. Now he's concentrating on rebuilding a community — a square block encompassed by Liberty, Logan, Green and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine.

"As you get older, you say to yourself, 'Why would I spend so much of my time building empires when I have so little of it?' " Smith says.

The 67-year-old entrepreneur and 130 volunteers met Jan. 10 at 224 W. Liberty St. with 140 gallons of white paint. As president of the Smith Family Foundation, Smith has not only the resources to help but also innovative ideas about how to do it.

Last year the foundation bought the surrounding block, nestled near Findlay Market and the Boys and Girls Club. Smith named one of the largest buildings the "Dirigar Center." He plans to turn it into a place where nonprofit agencies and other organizations can work with the community under one roof.

Volunteers from Give Back Cincinnati agreed to help.

Give Back Cincinnati was founded by three friends — Jamal Muashsher, Mike Pugh and Ryan Rybolt — who want to promote volunteerism in Cincinnati while fostering leadership skills in young adults.

"We paint and revitalize homes," Muashsher says.

Give Back Cincinnati started in 2000 with about 60 members; today it has 1,300. Increased membership means the organization is able to set higher goals. It works with community councils to renovate homes for lower income, disabled and senior citizens.

"Getting young professionals involved in the community — that alone is a very powerful concept, considering the point we are at in our city," Muashsher says.

Give Back Cincinnati volunteers spent a total of 910 person-hours cleaning and painting the 2,600-square-foot Dirigar Center. The building once housed a community action agency but has stood abandoned for several years. When the foundation bought the property, neighbors urged him to reopen the building for the community, Smith says.

When the Dirigar Center opens, the first tenant will be Gina Breyfogle, the former director of information technology (IT) training at Cincinnati Union Bethel. Breyfogle has developed a program called "LearnIT" to provide job training in areas such as building Web sites for small businesses. Smith says that effort fits his vision of a center that can link a number of service groups together.

By moving into the Dirigar Center, LearnIT hopes to provide childcare and mentors and tailor programs for each of its participants.

Search for Common Ground in Washington, D.C., is also working with Smith. The former entrepreneur is finding hope where many have given up, according to Roger Conner, executive director of Search for Common Ground.

"As an outsider, it looks like crushing self-doubt," Conner says. "Cincinnati's lost faith in itself. Where others see people who won't work together, Gale sees people who haven't been given the opportunity to work together. There's a tendency in Cincinnati for people to create new and separate organizations. Cincinnati spawns social entrepreneurs but they don't fit together, because that's just the way entrepreneurs are. Gale sees that people want to be aligned with one another and still retain their independence."

In Latin, "dirigar" means "I am aligned." In other words, the center will put in one place different groups, connecting resources for the community.

Why is Search for Common Ground — headquartered more than 500 miles away — interested in a process that effects just a single block in Over-the-Rhine?

"Cincinnati may be one of the most important cities in America," Conner says.

Search for Common Ground is organizing a public art project in Cincinnati. Smith is working to find buildings to serve as canvases for artist William Cochran to paint a series of murals downtown.

Along with artistic endeavors and job training opportunities meant to inspire and empower, Smith also wants to make housing a priority.

The block owned by the foundation includes several apartment buildings — some condemned, others salvageable. Smith has agreed to repair an eight-unit building and lease it to Sign of the Cross Housing, a nonprofit agency that specializes in finding apartments for homeless families.

Other buildings in the block might be opened for housing; Smith isn't sure yet.

"I have enough income that I can do what makes my heart sing," he says. "But the most important thing is commitment and will."

An entrepreneur who has owned restaurants and other companies since 1976, Smith said his business experience has taught him that a developer is a necessary part of his work with the nonprofit groups. The Miller Valentine Group will work with him in developing the block so the improvements he plans are sustainable: a bank, a restaurant or perhaps more apartment buildings.

"I listen to everybody, and I mean everybody," Smith says.

That kind of inclusiveness seemed present already at the Jan. 10 cleanup of the Dirigar Center. Sister Judy Tensing, co-director of Power Inspires Progress, set up a lunch table for all the volunteers. She runs West End Catering and Venice Pizza, which provide jobs to almost anyone willing to go for an interview. Also on hand to volunteer were Teresa Peter and members of Cincinnati Sports Leagues.

Corey Ferguson, a youth sports coordinator for the Housing Authority of Northern Kentucky, learned about Dirigar from Give Back Cincinnati.

"We live in an interdependent world and we create nothing alone," he said. ©

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